A 99-Year-Old, 1924 Chinese New Year Tale of Intrigue and Scandal
By Chris Devonshire-Ellis
My Aunt Birdie, to me at least growing up, was always old. Never considered a looker, she was tall, wore ‘sensible’ shoes, warm winter stockings no matter what the weather, and had a rather large bulbous nose. Hair, worn in curls, finished off the look with sparkling blue eyes topped off with a jaunty hat, usually set at an angle. She had worked for the BBC, apparently as a secretary of some sort, probably at Lime Grove – my Father also worked for Auntie after his World War Two demob.
Birdie – Ethel Bird to non-family, possessed an unwanted middle name, ‘W’ was inscribed on her initialed serviette ring when we were treated to tea at her small, yet cosy home in Surrey. I once asked what it stood for, and Birdie crossly ignored me. Later, one of her sisters, either Aunt May or Aunt Constance (Connie) told me it stood for ‘Winifred’ and that Birdie had always hated the name.
Birdie was fun though, had impeccable manners, and could be somewhat outrageous. She also liked men, which is why as a small boy, knowing I had lost my Mother, Birdie took me rather under her wing. At the inevitable tea and cake stop after visiting Chessington Zoo, she would enquire if I had had “an elegant sufficiency” – a rather cool way of asking if one has ‘had enough’ cake and buns, let leaving the door potentially open for disgraceful gluttony. The term remains in use in my homes today.
Spending time with her self-proclaimed yet whispered ‘favourite nephew’ however did lead to minor shocking incidents. Packed off for a religious education, Birdie had stunned, shocked and later left me in awe as she became the first woman, I ever heard say the word ‘fuck’, as the punchline in an utterly inappropriate joke told during a church service.
I grew to love her visits and ask about her extraordinary attire. She was the type of Grand Lady that could pull off grand jewellery, and I recall in particular detail one huge gold ring with what I now know to be Chinese lacquer work as a centre-piece. It was probably fashioned into calligraphy, I couldn’t tell what it was aged ten. She also wore a matching red lacquerware bead necklace, and when it was cold, a fox fur. She also taught me, at age eleven, to play mahjong. The rings she said were from ‘an old admirer’.
All this aside, there was always an undefinable whiff of scandal about Birdie. She had never married, yet occasionally mentioned mysterious trips – Egypt was mentioned, and Bombay. But never China.
I thought nothing of this until late 1991, when I turned up in Shanghai, on a week’s vacation from a job I had in Hong Kong with Asia Law & Practice organising legal conferences. China was very much on the horizon then, with the British territory entering its last ‘Party like its 1997’ vibe creating plenty of room for hedonism. Very few expats had ventured into scary mainland China though.
I had checked into the Peace Hotel, and for US$100 for five days ushered into the ‘Indian suite’ which was huge. Back in the 1920’s, families and their servants would travel en mass together, with children and nannies and maids all needed to be roofed in the same lodgings until they could find a suitable house to rent. The Peace Hotel I recall had seven such suites, all decorated in a particular national style: English, American, French, German, Italian, Indian and probably Chinese. Sadly, they no longer exist – the hotel has redesigned its outlets to accommodate smaller travelling entourages, although the Presidential Suite probably remains from one of these. The Peace Hotel’s Chinese restaurant, the ‘Long Fong’ (Dragon Phoenix) however remains as it was.
Shanghai to me in 1991 was showing early signals of waking up – the first stage of what became the Pearl of the Orient TV Tower was being constructed, while Chinese urchins outside the hotel shouted ‘Changee FEC! Changee FEC’ in order to swap the ‘Foreign Exchange Certificates’ (FEC) foreigners were issued with at the time for local RMB Yuan. FEC would give access to purchasing imported items from the Peace Hotels small Friendship Store outlet, where packets of Marlboro and bottles of red label Johnnie Walker could be purchased, otherwise off-limits to the local residents. Having RMB Yuan, although illegal, meant foreigners could pay for meals in authentic Chinese restaurants instead of the designated ‘FEC’ outlets. That didn’t prevent me being ejected from a local restaurant on Nanjing Xi Lu though with cries of ‘Damned Capitalist!’ ringing in my ears as an angry Chinese babushka sent me packing through the door.
All in all, I had a blast, and could see that Shanghai was waking up. I promised I would eventually have an office in the city. (I did, setting up Dezan Shira & Associates in Shanghai in 1994). I also wrote a postcard with an image of the Peace Hotel on it, to Birdie.
A month later, back in Hong Kong, I received a letter in return. In the type of sprawling, spidery-type scrawl that the elderly tend to use. It contained seven large pages of her handwritten prose. “My Dear Christopher” it began, as her letters to me always did “I am so glad you have found Shanghai. I used to live at the Cathay (Peace) Hotel….”
All this was news to me, although the suspicion of some Chinese influence in her life was now confirmed. She mentioned numerous places that I should visit, and she endearingly enquired after the racecourse, which had long since disappeared (it’s why the Shanghai Museum end of Nanjing Xi Lu today curves around). Birdies’ letter was full of articulate, warm memories of long ago, with no hint of anything remiss.
However, it was only after I began thinking about this situation, my aged Aunt Birdie, living in the expensive Cathay Hotel in the mid 1920’s that my interest began to be piqued. A BBC employee – and single woman – living at the Cathay? It seemed unlikely, but then I remembered the unspoken whispers of scandal that had always surrounded her, the ability to play Mahjong, the Chinese styled jewellery. Could Birdie have been a spy? Pre-World War Two Shanghai was a web of intrigue – no passports were required to enter, and revolutions elsewhere – especially from Russia – had created a menagerie of cultures, dispossession, political subversiveness and criminality that was probably unique.
A re-arming Japan, a brewing Chinese civil war, yet fantastic commercial profits and the idea of carving up China amongst the Western powers were all potent thoughts. Mix in rampant prostitution, freely available alcohol at a time of American prohibition, opium dealers and gambling houses, mixed together with penniless aristocracy with gangsters on their arms, and Shanghai was wild. No wonder the term ‘Shanghaied in Shanghai’ – a euphemism for having been kidnapped, for the purposes of a ransom or being sold into white slavery came into being. This was the world that Birdie had at one time inhabited. But a spy?
After some thought, I discounted it. A spy wouldn’t be larging it up at the Cathay Hotel. A lover, I thought, would have been more like it. Birdie was almost certainly someone’s Mistress. As I said earlier, Birdie liked men, and men liked Birdie. Not because she was beautiful – because she wasn’t, although she was elegant and had style. Not because she had any money; she was on a BBC wage. Men liked Birdie, one suspects, because she could tell dirty jokes with the best of them and stand up for herself. Even at age ten, I recall Birdie having a presence when she walked into a room. People noticed her. Birdie, I thought, had a sniff of family disapproval about her because she had taken a lover in Shanghai.
Back in the mid-1920’s, the Devonshire-Ellis family were the majority owners of John Brown & Co, a name probably unfamiliar now, but back in the day, one of Great Britain’s largest shipbuilders, based on the Clyde. They’d made a lot of money and a reputation during World War One when their Bessemer-process Steel clad Dreadnought type battleships helped Britannia win the war. By the 1920’s, although the battleships would soon return, the company was building Cruise Liners for Cunard, White Star, and many other operators. These were the pinnacle of shipbuilding of the day, with liners such as 1920’s liners RMS Carmania, HMS Leviathan, and the best known of all, HMS Lusitania.
With these ships and the later Empress of Britain and the Queen Mary, John Brown & Co were world-famous then and now. Consequently, and with names such as these, my ancestors and the great and the good of John Brown & Co regularly hosted Royal personages during the 1920’s and 1930’s at launches with the traditional champagne bottle breaking across the bows. Medals were awarded, quietly, as the Devonshire-Ellis’s of the day were a fairly quiet, unassuming lot. Unlike, some would suggest, their descendant, although that’s mainly publication and China expat jealousy. The thing was, with heritage like that at the time, relatives were supposed to be decorous and behave themselves. Birdie was neither.
Sadly, she died, aged 101, in Surrey before I was able to quiz her about Shanghai. But at the funeral and for a few days afterwards, I did manage to have conversations about her with my Aunt Connie – Birdies’ younger sister. I asked about the Shanghai time and the whiff of scandal. “Ethel did have a lover, and ‘beyond the pale’” Connie said “He was a wealthy Egyptian man. I think he was a trader. He adored Ethel but something happened during wartime, or they may have been forced to part. But although that was frowned upon in the family as it was felt it would ruin her reputation, that’s not the scandal. The scandal is that she was one of Wallis Simpson’s pals, and that was considered entirely inappropriate.”
I nearly fell off my chair. But Connie wasn’t done. “You know there was talk of a lot of sexual practices. I don’t know exactly but Shanghai back then was considered rather decadent. There was talk about Wallis and Birdie getting up to ‘naughty’ behaviours and something they got up too having to be suppressed”. Now I nearly fell off my chair again but laughing – my image of Birdie had always been of an elderly lady.
Connie – whether she knew any more salacious detail or not – wouldn’t divulge more. But the scent of scandal I had sensed all those years ago had been true – Birdie, it transpired, had been a rather wild lady in 1920’s Shanghai. It must have shocked and embarrassed the family, especially later when Simpson married Edward, the Duke of Windsor in 1937 and created a huge scandal of her own – he subsequently abdicated the throne as King Edward VIII to be with her.
Birdie, I assume, was rapidly bought back to London after whatever she had got up to with Wallis had created embarrassment – where the family could keep a determined eye on her comings and goings. What communications and friendship with Wallis I suspect ended, with the family rather more desirous on preserving royal shipbuilding patronage than tolerating expatriate Shanghai relatives rumpypumpying the city with Wallis and the Egyptian.
Shanghai tales of Wallis meanwhile continue to do the rounds and there are many books about her life. Some mention she had learned a repertoire of sexual practices, later used to satisfy randy Edward, while in the city. On the other hand, knives were already being sharpened to besmirch her and especially when her romance with Edward became public knowledge. Other books may well emerge, yet almost certainly recreated as fictionalized accounts as whatever Wallis did get up too in Shanghai has either been long buried or was made up at the time.
As for Birdie, she took those secrets, if there were any, with her to the grave, where they rightly remain in her ghostly memory. But it does create a mildly naughty twist to the question “Have you had an elegant sufficiency? “
Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Chairman of Dezan Shira & Associates. He began the firm in Hong Kong in 1992 and set up its Shanghai office in 1994. Today, the firm has 13 offices throughout China, still has its Hong Kong and Shanghai operations, and is one of the most successful foreign owned business consultancies in China – and Asia – today. See: www.dezshira.com
China Briefing is written and produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. The practice assists foreign investors into China and has done so since 1992 through offices in Beijing, Tianjin, Dalian, Qingdao, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Suzhou, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. Please contact the firm for assistance in China at email@example.com. Dezan Shira & Associates has offices in Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, United States, Germany, Italy, India, and Russia, in addition to our trade research facilities along the Belt & Road Initiative. We also have partner firms assisting foreign investors in The Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh.